Review of the Shinkaiyaku 2017

Coinciding with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a completely revised version of the Shinkaiyaku, a popular Japanese translation of the Bible, was published by Word of Life Press in the autumn of 2017. Named the Shinkaiyaku 2017, as of spring 2018 the new edition was selling in three print formats and as an app (¥3,000 on iTunes).

There are four main Japanese translations of the Bible: the Kōgoyaku, the Shinkyōdōyaku, the Shinkaiyaku, and the Living Bible. The Shinkaiyaku was first published in 1970 and has subsequently undergone two minor revisions in 1978 and 2003.

Why the need for a new edition?

According to a booklet introducing the Shinkaiyaku 2017,1 there are three main reasons for the major revision. The first is that Japanese is changing, so some words and phrases used 40 years ago sound old-fashioned today. The second is the constant advances that are being made in areas such as biblical languages and textual criticism, which the new edition reflects. The final reason is the need to improve consistency within the Shinkaiyaku. Since the New Testament was published before the Old Testament, there are some places where the words used in the two testaments differ.

Guiding principles behind the new edition

The Shinkaiyaku 2017 is based on six premises:2

  • the Bible is the inerrant Word of God,
  • a committee translation is the best way to guard against individual biases,
  • it is important to be faithful to the original manuscripts,
  • genre has to be taken into account when translating,
  • it is important to use current Japanese, and
  • there will need to be future revisions.

The nature of the changes

To get a better idea of the extent and kind of changes that have been made, I used the “compare changes” function in Word to create comparison files of six passages: Genesis 1–3, Psalm 23, Jonah 1, Matthew 28, John 1, and Romans 1. My first impression was “Wow! That’s a lot of changes.” Almost every verse contained a change (over 90% of the verses have been revised3). Closer inspection revealed that some revisions were quite minor, for example replacing a word in hiragana with kanji or changing the punctuation.

Seven main types of revisions have been made.3 I’ve listed them below with examples from the first chapter of the Gospel of John.

1. Updating of language

As mentioned above, Japanese has changed over the past four decades, and so some phrases and words have been updated. I couldn’t find any examples of this in John 1, but elsewhere 「かわやに出されてしまう」 has been changed to 「排泄されます」. I got the impression that relatively few revisions fall in this category.

2. Clarifying ambiguous expressions

Revisions have been made in some places where the original translation was unclear. For example, in John 1:33, 「水でバプテスマを授けさせるために」 has been changed to 「水でバプテスマを授けさせるようにと」 to clarify that God sent John in order to baptise with water (purpose) and not because he baptised with water (reason).

3. Changing hiragana to kanji

The previous editions of the Shinkaiyaku contained quite a high proportion of words in hiragana. While that made it easier for children and Japanese learners to read, many Japanese people find kanji quicker and easier to read than hiragana. Consequently, many words have been changed to kanji in the new edition. For example, in John 1, 「やみ」 has been replaced with 「闇」, 「あかし」 with 「証し」, and 「ふたり」 with 「二人」.

4. Making the two testaments consistent

As mentioned above, inconsistencies in terms used in the Old and New Testaments in previous editions have been fixed in the Shinkaiyaku 2017. In John 1:29, 「小羊」 has been replaced with 「子羊」 for this reason.

5. Making phrases more concise and easier to read

Some phrases that were verbose in the earlier editions have been shortened. This change is designed to improve readability without altering the meaning. In John 1:15, 「叫んで言った」 has been shortened to 「叫んだ」 and there are several other such changes in the passage with other speaking verbs.

6. Making it easier to understand

It was hard to find a specific example of this in John 1, but there were several places where revisions seemed to improve comprehension. Two examples are replacing [ものです」 with 「ものだ」 in 「おまえたちは白く塗った墓のようなものです」 and the introduction of paragraphs in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7.

7. Updating names of people and places

The names of many proper nouns have been changed to reflect common usage. For example, in John 1:41, 「メシヤ」 has been replaced with 「メシア」 and in the following verse 「ケパ」 has been changed to 「ケファ」.

Opinions of Japanese Christians

I asked a few Japanese Christian friends for their opinions on the Shinkaiyaku 2017 based on the six passages mentioned above. Their responses varied considerably.

One friend was very enthusiastic about it and wanted to rush out and buy a copy. She said it was much more readable, comparing it to reading a novel. She thought the punctuation was better and the words and phrases were closer to what people use in everyday life. She also liked the use of more kanji. Another friend thought that the Shinkaiyaku 2017 was a definite improvement over the previous edition but didn’t feel like the revisions were that big.

Another friend preferred the previous edition. He cited places where he felt the solemnity of the previous edition had been lost by using more everyday Japanese. He also pointed out places where the word-for-word translation resulted in unnatural and overly formal Japanese. Another friend also preferred the previous edition as it spoke to her more directly.

Thoughts of Japanese teachers

I also asked four Japanese adults for their thoughts on the new edition. Three had had limited prior exposure to the Bible and one who had had some exposure. These were four teachers that I took free-talk lessons with on the language-learning site Cafetalk (www.cafetalk.com). Three teachers were not Christians, while one had become a Catholic a few years ago.

I had prepared a document containing both the old and new editions (but without indicating which was the new or old one) of three passages: Genesis 1:1–12, Psalm 23, and John 1:1–14. During the lessons, I asked the teachers to read both versions of each passage and tell me which they preferred and why.

The exercise really highlighted the knowledge gap that exists between Japanese Christians and general Japanese people. The three teachers who had not been exposed to the Bible before really struggled to make any sense of the passages.

For Genesis 1, all teachers thought the new edition was the easiest to read. They commented that the punctuation was better, the reading was more natural and smooth, and the sentences were not so protracted. Opinion was divided about Psalm 23. The three teachers who had not read the Bible before found the old version easier to understand, whereas the Catholic teacher found the new version easier. For John 1, three of the teachers preferred the new version while one preferred the old one. Of those who preferred the new version, two mentioned that having kanji instead of hiragana made it easier to read.

As a final exercise, I asked them to read the same three passages in the Living Bible, which has been translated into Japanese from the English New Living Translation. It is a more paraphrasic translation than the other three Japanese Bible translations. The Catholic teacher preferred the Shinkaiyaku, but the other three found the Living Bible much more comprehensible and some commented that it was more like reading a novel.

Assessment and recommendations

The Shinkaiyaku 2017 definitely seems to be a significant improvement over the previous edition. All of the seven kinds of revisions are helpful, and collectively they make the Shinkaiyaku 2017 more accurate, easier to read, and more up-to-date than its predecessor. It’s terrific that there are ongoing efforts to revise this translation of the Bible.

If you’re using the Shinkaiyaku, it would be well worth your while to investigate the new edition and consider switching to it. I think it’s a great translation for personal use, Bible studies, and reading and preaching in church. Don’t let the fact that there are more kanji frighten you, as all versions published so far have furigana.

Probably the area that it fares least well is evangelism, but even here the Shinkaiyaku 2017 is better than the previous edition. The Shinkaiyaku 2017 feels like the Japanese equivalent of the English Standard Version (ESV) in terms of where it falls on the formal equivalence (word for word) to dynamic equivalence (thought for thought) spectrum. In other words, it tends to favour accuracy of translation over readability, which is great for solid Bible study but not so helpful when introducing someone to Christianity.

The crying need at the moment is for a Japanese Bible that corresponds to the English New Living Translation—but one that has been translated from the original languages instead of from the English version. Japan needs a version that is more readable and colloquial than the current translations (would having Jesus and his Galilean disciples speak in Osaka-ben be going too far?). Is anyone up for the challenge?

Reviewed by Simon Pleasants


1. どう変わるか?新しい聖書新改訳2017  Word of Life Press (2017), page 4.

2. Ibid, page 3.

3. Ibid, pages 5-8.

Book image: https://img05.shop-pro.jp/PA01018/534/product/123080344.jpg

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